It’s no surprise that online permitting systems provide a better overall experience for government staff and the communities they serve. They enable full transparency into the process, staff to streamline tasks and data input, applicants to easily navigate complex projects online, and, ultimately, permits to be issued faster.
But garnering support for your permitting transformation project is another story altogether. Change is daunting, and these projects are no small feat. Especially faced with competing priorities, your stakeholders may be hesitant to commit to a reasonable timeline, or may be reluctant to make the switch at all.
That’s why, as Former Snohomish County Director of Planning and Development Services, Barb Mock, explains, it’s critical you engage your stakeholders early, and come to the table prepared to win some support.
We spoke with Barb about exactly how she got buy-in for a new permitting system. Here are her top 5 tips to get your stakeholders on board.
In most cases, these will be the 3 most important stakeholders to engage:
Elected officials have the authority, funding, and resources to get your project across the finish line. But don’t wait long to engage them: instead, involve them right from the start.
“The way to have a project crash is to not involve elected officials early on,” Barb said.
Focus on building lasting relationships with elected officials. And don’t forget to introduce yourself to new officials each time a new one is appointed. A simple 10 to 15-minute appointment with each official from time to time can be a huge help in securing and maintaining buy-in for your project.
Ask what the permitting department can do for them and share a high-level description of your permitting upgrade project. Explain the need for the new system, how the project will meet those needs, and how customers feel about it.
As the project gets underway, keep your elected officials informed of progress. Barb’s team sent regular email updates to all stakeholders that reminded them of the project justification and kept everyone up to date on project progress.
“I tried to make sure we were clear and weren’t overpromising, because you really need them to trust you in order to keep your credibility intact,” she said.
Customers are your primary audience: the people your system will serve and the ones that will pay for it. You’re trying to make sure they’re happy, so why not put them in the driver’s seat?
Residential and small business permit applicants will likely need a lot of handholding anyway, so focus on soliciting feedback from large builders and developers who will regularly use and rely on the efficiency of your system to stay in business. Invite them to share what’s working about the current system and what isn’t. Create a plan to meet with your most engaged customers monthly or bimonthly throughout the process to gain valuable feedback as new questions arise.
“How often does the government ask its customers what they need?” explained Barb. “And how often does the government respond to those customers’ needs? When they do, it’s gold.”
Giving your customers the ability to “test drive” your system and request important features helps ensure they are bought in—and stay bought in—from day one.
Your coworkers, colleagues, and organizational leaders are going to be the key to a successful permitting software upgrade. This audience includes everyone in the permitting department, of course, but also leaders and coworkers across IT, human resources, finance, legal, labor unions, risk management, records specialists, and more.
Keep in mind that some staff might feel threatened or offended that you want to change the process they’ve become accustomed to. Use change management strategies to help them understand how the new system will make their jobs easier.
Pay close attention to anyone who staffs the front counter or spends a lot of time on the phone with customers. Remember, these are the people most likely to catch flak if the system doesn’t work well for permitting staff or customers. You can help win over internal stakeholders by sharing the information you learn from customers and demonstrating how it will inform permitting upgrade priorities.
Build a business case that you can present to your stakeholders to answer any “why” questions in more detail. Essentially, your business case is a justification for why you need to take on the project.
Your business case is not a project plan of all the steps you’ll take to execute the project. Rather, it affirms the business need, how the new system will meet this need, and how everyone will benefit once the new system is in place.
Your business case should address any problems with the current permitting system, the benefits and risks associated with each solution put forth, what the permitting department (and government, and customers, and the community) stands to gain from installing the new system, and what the team’s final recommendation is, based on the information presented. It should be simple, clear, and to the point, and avoid any technical jargon.
“A business case is something we did at the beginning of every project,” said Barb. “We learned the hard way that if you don’t, you are going to get really good, hard, fair questions throughout the project. You'll be scrambling for answers, which doesn’t put you in the best light.”
Remember, you don’t need to do this alone (nor should you!). Get your core project team together and ask everyone what they think is the purpose of the project. This almost always leads to a problem statement that can be the basis of your business case. Then, refine your business case as you socialize it with other key stakeholders until you are ready to share more widely.
#3 Create your Communication plan
Write your elevator pitch for the layperson and the analyst.
Can you explain your business case in the time it takes to travel from your office’s entrance to the top floor? If you can’t, it’s too long. But even if you can, you’ll want to make sure your elevator pitch can easily pass two tests with flying colors.
First, the layperson test: Have an eighth grader read your business case. If they don’t understand it, go back and edit it until they do.
Second, the analyst test: Take the time to triple check any facts and figures, and don’t overpromise. Make sure that anyone who wants to dive deeper on your business case won’t be disappointed and lose trust by finding any errors.
Finally, don’t promise drastic cost savings in staff or materials: “That won’t be for several years or even decades,” said Barb. Rather, focus on benefits like higher levels of customer service, transparency, more predictability and professionalism, and shorter permit issuance timelines.
Be consistent, but tailor your approach to your audience.
To keep all your stakeholders on board, you’ll need to present your case several times over the course of the project. Make this easier on your team and ensure a consistent experience for your audience—whether it’s staff, other departments, council members, the public, engineers, developers, or community groups—by using the same presentation template every time.
Build out a one-size-fits-all presentation template “base” that addresses the business case: the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the project. But create customized slides for each of your various audiences that are tailored to their use case. For instance, finance teams will want to see slides focused on the financial aspects, while customers will want to learn about your new permitting system’s features. Permitting staff will want to understand how the system will make their lives easier.
“As the project went on, we would get requests for presentations and we always asked which type of presentation would fit best,” said Barb. “The presentations kept getting better and better… but we always went back to beginning and shared the ‘why.’”
Consider different types of engagement methods for each type of stakeholder, too. For customers, get yourself invited to any local association meetings. For elected officials, make individual appointments—and keep them very brief. For leadership, answer their questions, ask for support, and address any concerns immediately. For all staff, make sure your communications address “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM).
Don’t reinvent the wheel: use Barb’s presentation template.
Your base presentation template presentation can be reused and resaved countless times and refined and refreshed depending on the audience. Keep it simple, and make sure it is no more than 10-12 slides.
Below is the template Barb’s team used to engage their stakeholders when it came time to update their permitting system.
The purpose of the project is _____________________________________________
The problem we are trying to solve is _______________________________________
The products of the project are ____________________________________________
The outcomes we will achieve are __________________________________________
The scope of the project is _______________________________________________
What we will NOT do ____________________________________________________
The draft schedule______________________________________________________
The estimated budget ___________________________________________________
We’ll do the project in #_____ of phases
Also, try to get ahead by preparing your presentation before you start your journey. This will give you margins and space. It will also show everyone that the project team is organized, the investment makes sense, and that it’s a popular decision with constituents and staff.
“Trust me, you really need to do this,” said Barb. “It gets you and the team focused, eliminates mixed messages, and addresses questions and confusion. People make up their own stories and fill the empty vacuum if you haven’t already filled it.”
#4 Prioritize a quick win
Sometimes, the best way to ensure buy-in is to prove your credibility on a smaller action first. Get a quick win under your belt to open the doors to long-term buy-in.
For example, Barb’s team prioritized a few process changes to their homegrown permitting system that were most important to frequent permitting applicants. Once they showed these customers that they were willing to prioritize their needs, the customers were happy to support the larger shift to an online permitting system.
#5 Don't quit while you're ahead
Once your permitting system upgrade is underway, it can be easy to assume you’ve got the buy-in you need and focus solely on implementation. But priorities and personnel can shift, so it’s imperative that you keep people in the loop throughout the entire process—even after launch.
Go back to your key stakeholders regularly to provide updates and get new input based on the progress you’ve made since your last communication. Involve people, especially customers, from concept through testing and launch of the system.
Finally, keep in mind that getting executive buy-in for a new online permitting system is just one step in the process. Check out this buyer’s guide for more on what you need to know and do before making a software purchase.